As Worcester Public Schools continues to grapple with an inability to fulfill state-mandated services agreed upon a year ago by its own officials and the mother of a 15-year-old special needs student, the latest proposed solution from the school department involves reducing its obligation by 40 percent.
Now Kelly Rawson, mom to Eugene “Gino” Berthiaume — born with a rare virus that has limited his development and caused deafness, among other ailments — says she believes the schools’ decisions could be financially motivated.
“It’s a less expensive alternative,” said Rawson of the school’s therapy-based option opposed to her preferred residential program. “Although they would likely save some money by no longer having to pay for Gino’s transportation every day [Gino would be staying four nights and five days at the Framingham school he attends daily], it would be cheaper [for the district] to drive him back and forth every day and add the [Applied Behavior Analysis] therapist than it would be to pay for Gino to attend the dorm program.”
Rawson met Friday, Jan. 8, with WPS Special Education IEP Evaluation Team chairperson Kelly O’Donnell, members of the special education department and representatives from the Framingham school where Gino is bused, by WPS through School Choice, each day.
Rawson said O’Donnell reiterated the school department position that a residential program was not a fit for Gino and that he had made enough strides in the schools’ assessment that he would require only three days of 1 ½-hour sessions with an ABA therapist, instead of the five days posed last January in an Individualized Education Program [IEP] that expires Jan. 30 and was never fulfilled.
“Kelly [O’Donnell] felt he improved,” said Rawson, who said she disagreed with and declined to sign the new IEP. “The only improvement listed was behavior due to new meds he started taking [in 2015]. Which is always a juggling act with psych meds. There were no ILS [Independent Living Skills] improvements listed on the IEP.”
WPS officials have declined comment based on the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act [FERPA], a federal law that protects the privacy of student education records.
The IEP is a statement written by the home school district, in this case Worcester, that outlines the needs of special education students as part of state-regulated guidelines.
Gino, who attends the Marie Jean Philip Elementary School at The Learning Center for Deaf Children in Framingham, was diagnosed at birth with congenital cytomegalovirus (CMV) and suffers from bilateral hearing loss, developmental delays, epilepsy and cerebral palsy.
“In that program [at the Philip School], the teachers and staff try to go above and beyond a child’s IEP,” Rawson said. “And what the dorm program is designed for is independent living skills, safety awareness, self-care, navigating the community, working, and learning trades.
“This is what I’ve been pushing for, and the Worcester district has always said no.”
Gino attends the intensive day program at the Learning Center for the Deaf. For a single student, the annual tuition rate of that program is $80,345.16, or $405.78 per day, according to data from the Operational Services Division of the Massachusetts Executive Office for Administration and Finance.
The amount Worcester Schools would pay depends on whether there’s a cost share with other state agencies, according to Jacquiline Brown, director of special education pricing for the state Office of Administration and Finance.
According to the same data, it would be nearly $88,000 annually, or $444.04 per day, for Gino to attend the residential program there.
A Dec. 2 evaluation by Dr. Sanjay Gulati, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Boston’s Children’s Hospital, indicates some support for the current situation and suggests that the residential program model would be both beneficial and difficult for Gino.
Psychologist and researcher Dr. Amy Szarkowski, also of Children’s Hospital, completed an evaluation prior to last January’s IEP meeting at the behest of Rawson (as did Dr. Gulati). These evaluations are not mandates but must be taken into consideration during the IEP process.
Rawson has said the WPS administration is opposed to the dorm program at the Philip school because it wants Gino placed in the least restrictive environment possible.
Dr. Gulati’s evaluation, though indicating Gino is “appropriately placed in a highly specialized educational program” at the Learning Center, says the “[residential] program could be even less restrictive than his current placement,” contradicting the WPS stance.
The assessment by Dr. Gulati suggests Gino be considered for the residential program, as it would support his adaptive living skills, but did note that Gino’s “reduced repertoire of adaptive living skills means that he would require extensive support to live in such a setting.”
Dr. Gulati also notes that in-home services, such as the one WPS didn’t follow through with, “have not been successful because sign language proficient providers have not been identified.”
Ultimately, Dr. Gulati’s evaluation, which was sent to O’Donnell and Dr. Christy Stine, Gino’s neurologist from UMass Memorial Medical Center, called for Gino’s support team to think “creatively” about ways to address his “daily living and self-care skills, as well as social-interaction skills.”
According to Rawson, the school department has still not found a qualified candidate for the ABA therapist position.